Though they have had uphill battles throughout history, many women have left an everlasting mark in the human narrative. Often having their legacies undermined, these confident women didn’t listen when they were told “it’s a man’s world.” From groundbreaking scientists to pirate queens to WWII resistance fighters, these women take the word heroine to the next level. Here are 60 tough facts about remarkable women who made history.
Women Who Made History Facts
1. To The Death
From her childhood spent learning how to become an expert swordswoman to her scandalous affairs, there was often little difference between Julie d’Aubigny’s life and an episode of Game of Thrones. D’Aubigny was a bisexual 17th century opera singer and fencing master who performed nightly shows on one of the biggest opera stages in the world at the time.
She was known to take many lovers, one of which was a young woman who was sent to a convent to become a nun when her parents found out about her affair with Julie. Julie followed her to the convent, later escaping with her lover but only after burning the convent to the ground. She killed or wounded at least ten men in fencing duels to the death. Talk about killing it!
2. Curied Away
Marie Curie, a Polish scientist, made an indelible mark on the world we live in today. Her research on radioactive substances lead to great discoveries—but tragically, they came at a dire cost. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize, discovered Radium, helped create the first-ever ambulances, and saved the lives of countless soldiers during WWII.
Curie never once patented her discoveries, deciding that her findings were for the betterment of humanity, and not personal profit. It’s believed that the aplastic anemia that killed her was caused by her long-term exposure to radiation during her research.
3. Running Joke
Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon in 1967. Though other women had completed the marathon, Kathrine was the first to be a registered runner. When the organizer found out she was running the marathon, he went to terrifying lengths to stop her, attacking her and trying to rip off her bib. Her boyfriend, who was also running, managed to shove the organizer off of Switzer.
She finished the race without any further complications. Pictures of Semple, the organizer, trying to stop her from running were widespread throughout the media. It took another five years for women to be officially allowed to run in the marathon.
4. Space Case
Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, aboard Vostok 6 in 1963. But she came from humble origins—she was a textile factory worker for many years. One of her hobbies, amateur skydiving, hinted at the, ahem, great heights she would end up aspiring to. To join the Vostok 6 crew, she was selected from over 400 candidates and beat out four other finalists for the opportunity to.
Remember to aim for the stars, kids!
Amelia Earhart was the first female aviator to fly across the Atlantic ocean in 1928. She was given US Distinguished Flying Cross for this accomplishment. Earhart was quoted as saying “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others.” Tragically, she mysteriously disappeared during a flight in 1937.
6. In The Right(s)
Komako Kimura was a Japanese suffragist who marched on Fifth Avenue in New York to demand the right to vote for women. When Komako did this in 1917, xenophobia was still a big problem in America. In Japan, she was banned from having meetings in public places, and her writing on women’s rights was suppressed.
Her heartbreaking and dramatic past may have had something to do with her fierce advocacy for women’s rights—she’d nearly been married off to a stranger who wanted to make her his concubine when she was younger.
7. Engineered Badass
Elisa Zamfirescu was the world’s first-ever female engineer. She graduated from the Royal Academy of Technology Berlin in 1912, after being rejected in her home country of Romania due to prevailing misogyny at the time. She worked at the Geological Institute of Romania for many years, stopping to manage a hospital for soldiers in WWI. When she retired, she became an activist for disarmament.
Just goes to show, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
8. Edge Of Your Seat
Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist famous for refusing to obey bus driver James F. Blake’s order to give up her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger, which was mandatory after the whites-only section was filled. Her defiance became a symbol of the modern Civil Rights Movement. She also collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon, the president of the local NAACP chapter, and Martin Luther King.
Sofia Ionescu was a Romanian neurosurgeon who worked in the field of neurosurgery for over 47 years, performing every single procedure known to medical science in that time. She is considered one of the first-ever female neurosurgeons in the world. She was compelled to get into the profession as the result of a heartbreaking tragedy.
When she was young, one of her close friends passed away after contracting an infection during brain surgery.
10. Scholar And A Lady
Fatima al-Fihri was an Arab Muslim woman who is credited with founding the University of Al-Quaraouiyine in Morocco in 859 CE. The university is still operating to this day and is often referred to as the oldest operating university in the world, though it wasn’t officially a university until the 1950s.
Stephanie Kwolek was an American chemist who invented Kevlar, the material used in most bulletproof vests and body armor. In 1995, she became the fourth ever woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall Of Fame. Kevlar isn’t just used for bulletproof armor though, and is often used to make tennis rackets, boats, planes, skis, ropes, cables, and tires.
If you’ve ever taken a science class where you were shown the “Nylon Rope Trick,” that’s one of Kwolek’s innovations as well.
12. Smarty Pants
Margaret Heafield was the director of software engineering for NASA’s Apollo space program. She wrote the mathematical sequence that enabled the Apollo mission to be successful. She was so good at what she did, NASA would have her double-check equations done by the computers. She’s pictured below with the code that made the Apollo launch possible.
13. Royal Pain
Rani Lakshmi Bai was the Queen of Jhansi and one of the most important heroines of the first war for Indian freedom from British rule. She rebelled when the British tried to annex her territory, and met her oppressors on the battlefield on horseback, with her child strapped to her back. Though she was eventually killed in battle, she fought to her last breath for something she believed in.
14. A Pirate’s Life For Me
Jeanne de Clisson was married to an English nobleman who was imprisoned and beheaded as a result of the proxy wars between England and France. Enraged by this, Jeanne sold off the Clisson estate, bought herself a ship, and began her career as a pirate in the English channel, attacking and robbing every French ship she got her hands on.
As revenge, she personally beheaded every French nobleman she captured. She did this for 13 years, before retiring to remarry. Who said revenge won’t help you get ahead?
Lyudmila Pavlichenko is the most successful female sniper in human history. Initially barred entry into the Red Army to due to her sex, Lyudmila would go on to rack up 309 confirmed kills in WWII. Her terrifying skills as a sniper and impressive kill count earned her the nickname “Lady Death” from her German enemies.
16. Secret Agent (Wo)Man
Virginia Hall was considered the “most dangerous of all allied spies” by the Germans, who referred to her as “The Limping Lady” due to her wooden leg. She worked behind German lines for over 30 years, and is the most successful female spy ever to have worked for the OSS (precursor to the CIA). After WWII, she was the only female civilian to be recognized for her service and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross from OSS director General Donovan.
17. Judo Chop
Nancy Wake was another Allied spy during WWII. To start with, she personally helped save over 200 downed allied pilots from falling into the hands of Nazi Germany’s penal system. She also survived over four days of Gestapo interrogations, blew up a Nazi supply depot, and had a bounty of five million francs placed on her head.
As if that wasn’t tough enough, she also killed an SS Stormtrooper with her bare hands by delivering a single strike to his throat.
18. Tanks A Lot
Mariya Oktyabrskaya sold all of her belongings to purchase a T-34 tank after her husband was killed while fighting Nazis on the Eastern front during WWII. She donated the tank to the Red Army on one condition—that she would be the one to pilot it. She was known to get out of her tank to perform repairs during intense battles. It was this bravery that earned her the Hero Of The Soviet Union medal after the war.
19. Miss Khan
Khutulun was the great-great-granddaughter of legendary conqueror Genghis Khan. Taught the inner workings of military life by her father, Khutulun became a skilled and powerful warrior. For her marriage, she proposed a challenge: any man that could best her in a wrestling match would have the honor of taking her hand in marriage. If they lost, they would have to give her a horse.
Legend says Khutulun won over 10,000 horses.
20. Serbs Them Right
Milunka Savic was a Serbian war hero during WWI and the Balkan Wars. Initially entering the military by pretending to be a man, Milunka would go on to become one of the most decorated female combatants of all time, being awarded distinctions from France, Russia, Serbia and England.
21. Voted In
Kate Sheppard was a women’s rights activist in New Zealand and the most famous suffragette in the country. She lead the charge for women’s suffrage in New Zealand, eventually leading New Zealand to be the first country that gave women the right to vote. She is now a national hero and depicted on the 10 NZD note.
22. Wrong Again
Billie Jean King is an American Tennis legend, having won over 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in women’s singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles. King was also the first-ever prominent female athlete to come out as gay, something that was unheard of in 1981. She also took on Bobby Riggs in a match that would forever be known as “The Battle of the Sexes.”
Riggs was past his prime, but was convinced that he could beat the best female pro. It was a boast that he’d live to regret. She whooped him decisively, three sets to none.
23. The British Are Coming!
Sybil Ludington was the daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington and is a celebrated hero of the American Revolutionary war. Her rise to fame occurred when she got on her horse to warn Colonial forces of British forces approached, riding twice the distance of her male counterpart Paul Revere.
24. Speed Racer
Eliska Junkova was a Czechoslovakian automobile racer. Not only was she participating in the male dominated sport, but she was also able to be competitive while doing so. She is often considered to be one of, if not the greatest, female driver in Grand Prix motor racing history.
25. Vive La Resistance
Simone Segouin was a former French resistance fighter who helped liberate France from the clutches of Nazi Germany. Among her first acts of defiance was stealing a bicycle belonging to a Nazi military administrator that she then used to deliver messages to the resistance. She also took on often perilous missions like derailing trains and blowing up bridges, many with great success.
26. Small Carbon Footprint
Rachel Carson was an American biologist and environmentalist. She challenged the prevailing idea of conquering nature that most industrialists had at the time, and her book Silent Spring is credited with advancing the global environmentalist movement. Thanks for all your amazing work Rachel!
27. Sendler’s List
Irena Sendler was a Polish nurse and humanitarian who ran the Polish Underground in Nazi-occupied Poland. She was the head of the children’s section, Zegota, and with the help of a few dozen other Zegota members, she was able to save over 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and providing them with falsified documents once out.
With the exception of diplomats who granted visas to Jews during WWII, Sendler saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust.
28. Space Case Part II
Eileen Collins is a retired NASA astronaut and US Air Force Colonel. A former military test pilot and instructor, Eileen was the first ever female pilot and first female commander of a space shuttle. In total, Eileen has logged 38 days, 8 hours, and 20 minutes in space.
Mary Harris Jones, also known as “Mother Jones,” was an Irish-born American schoolteacher. She rose to fame because of her work in organizing labor unions to protect the rights of laborers, namely miners. She helped coordinate major strikes that lead to safer working conditions for miners and other laborers, and even co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World, which is to this day fighting for laborers’ rights throughout the world.
She was also known as “the most dangerous woman in the world” for her success in organizing workers.
30. Take Flight
Sabiha Gokcen was the first ever female Turkish combat pilot, and was only 23 when she earned that title. Though there is some dispute, many consider Sabiha to be the first ever female fighter pilot. Sabiha was such a pioneer in the field of aviation that one of two international airports serving Istanbul is named after her.
31. Chief Leaf
A figure known simply as Woman Chief (but sometimes referred to as Pine Leaf), was an indigenous warrior and leader of the Crow People. She was interested in traditionally male pursuits, eventually becoming an adept hunter and military leader. She was known to take female many female lovers and even vowed to kill 100 men with her bare hands.
There’s no record of her actually doing so, but given her track record, there’s no reason to believe she couldn’t have done it if she wanted to.
32. Lover Not A Fighter
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a 17th-century poet who lived in Mexico City. Most of her poetry was a bit too raunchy for the tastes of the Catholic church, the ruling political force at the time. She came to be known as one of the world’s most daring erotic writers of her time.
33. Three Times the Fun
The Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Maria, were Dominican revolutionaries who fearlessly opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. They quickly became regarded as symbols of resistance and feminist icons known as the “Butterflies.” Not even several stints in prison was enough to slow these sisters down, so Trujillo ordered an assassination on the three that was successful.
Their deaths sparked public outrage and many believe was a leading cause for Trujillo’s own assassination, just six months later.
34. Pretty Rad(en)
Raden Ajeng Kartini was an advocate for women’s emancipation and education in Indonesia. She is hailed as Indonesia’s first feminist, and wrote extensively about improving public health care and protection of traditional arts on Java Island, as well as writing against Dutch colonial rule of Indonesia.
Raden is a title that was granted to her, similar to the title Duchess, in recognition of her hard work.
35. Red Blooded American
Ida B. Wells was a brilliant American journalist, suffragist, and anti-lynching activist. When three of her friends were lynched in 1892, she investigated the murders and wrote about her findings in the newspaper The Free Speech. As a result, her newspaper’s office was destroyed by an angry mob, forcing Wells to move to Chicago, where she continued to write on the law and history of lynching.
Along with fellow suffragist Jane Addams, she was able to block the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago.
36. Painted Lady
Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the most famous and skilled painters of the Baroque era, who achieved artistic acclaim at a time when women weren’t even allowed to enroll in artistic academies. Sadly, Artemisia was assaulted by a colleague of her father, also a painter, and was forced to endure a brutal trial. Eventually her rapists were convicted, but never served the sentence.
Artemisia then painted one of her most famous paintings, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” which many believed to be revenge for the sham trial she was subjected to.
37. The Original Mulan
Tomoe Gozen was a legendary 12th-century samurai warrior. Noted for being a skilled archer, she was often referred to as a “warrior worth a thousand.” Tomoe was one of many Onna-Bugeisha, female samurai warriors who fought alongside their male counterparts.
38. Lady Justice
Yaa Asantewaa was a leading figure in the war against British Colonialism in what is present-day Ghana. Yaa was a warrior queen who also happened to be a 60 year old grandmother when she began fighting the British. These days Yaa Asantewaa is celebrated as the epitome of African womanhood and resistance to European colonialism.
39. Hair To The Throne
CJ Walker was America’s first self-made female millionaire, making her fortune on hair care products aimed at African-American women. Walker also used her money to donate to philanthropic causes, and even became a patron of the arts. Don’t you just love a rags-to-riches story?
40. Warrior Queen
AEthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians was a warrior queen, who, after her husband died, took over as ruler of her small Anglo-Saxon kingdom and fended off multiple Viking invasions. Her ascension to the throne after her husband’s death has been described as “one of the most unique events in early medieval history.”
41. The Pirate Queen
Ching Shih was a sex worker that was captured by pirates in the early 1800s. She soon married the pirate’s captain, Cheng I. When Cheng died she maneuvered herself into a leadership position, and soon was the captain of her own fleet, which she grew to over 1,800 ships. She commanded 40,000 to 80,000 pirates throughout her career and is known as one of the most successful pirates of all time.
When Ching Shih’s fleet launched an attack on the Chinese coast, tributes were demanded and opposing forces were swiftly defeated. The British were called in to help, but they had no idea what they were in for. Proving her mettle as a cunning pirate queen, Ching Shih successfully captured seven British sailors and one official from the East India Company in the ensuing battle.
Shih was recently depicted in Pirates of the Caribbean as one of the nine pirate lords.
43. World Record Holder
Hey, we never said they had to make history for good reasons. A noblewoman who owned land in the Kingdom of Hungary in the late 16th and early 17th century has a rather notorious world record: she is listed as the most prolific female murderer of all time. Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed would lure peasant girls to her castle with the promise of work and lodging, only to then ritualistically murder them.
During her trial, it was said she killed roughly 650 girls, though historians have since disputed this claim. Either way, her victims totaled into the hundreds.
44. In the Dungeons
The investigation into Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed produced rather stomach-churning results. After arresting the Countess, details began to emerge about the brutal nature of the acts she performed. She used needles, covered girls in honey and live ants, and possibly even performed acts of cannibalism by biting the faces and arms of some girls.
45. Curse of the Black Pearl
Cora Pearl was an English courtesan who was renowned for her scandalous affairs with multiple members of the 19th-century French royal family, her decadent spending, and, most of all, her cruelty. Pearl openly referred to her men as her “chain of gold,” i.e. interchangeable and enriched stepping stones on her way to fortune.
As if to publicly mock her “dark” reputation, Pearl often wore a famous necklace of black pearls that became her calling card.
46. Served With a Side of Buns
Cora Pearl’s decadence was so great, an army of servants once carried her buck naked upon a silver platter into a party. Sexy, but not very sanitary.
47. One Powerful Lady
Mochizuki Chiyome was one of the most famous female ninjas of her time. So the legend goes, she managed to recruit 300 women to form an underground espionage training operation. On the surface, it seemed that Mochizuki was running an orphanage for young women, but she was really training ninjas assassins and spies.
48. Making That Cheddar
The illegitimate children of Pope Alexander VI—also known as Rodrigo Borgia—have enough scandal to fill their own article. But for now, we’ll just mention his most famous natural daughter Lucrezia Borgia, who allegedly dabbled in poisons. However, Lucrezia was also involved in the less nefarious world of mozzarella cheese production.
Hey, not unlike ogres, Borgia lovechildren have layers.
49. Warrior Queen
Boudicca was a Celtic queen of the Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying Roman Empire around 60 AD when their lands were taken by the Romans and they were no longer treated as allies. Indeed, after Boudicca’s husband died, the Romans sensed the power vacuum, took her lands, and assaulted her and her daughters.
Not one to sit back and let the Romans walk all over her, Boudicca went on the attack. She was eventually defeated in the Battle of Watling Street, but not before causing catastrophic damage to her enemies, killing 80,000 Roman soldiers. An inspiration to the British for millennia, Boudicca is still remembered as an ideal image of a warrior queen.
50. She’s Kind of Scary
Based on descriptions of Boudicca by ancient historians, she was a pretty terrifying figure. She was described as being of above-average height, having a “piercing gaze,” waist-length fire-red hair, a harsh voice, and possessing a “greater intelligence than often belongs to women.” OK, not the greatest compliment, but from an ancient historian, that was about as good as it gets for a woman.
51. Women Rule!
Boudicca’s legend was seen by the Romans as a cautionary tale for what happens when women are allowed to rule, but two British queens took a different view of the story. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I used it to solidify her own rule and to demonstrate that a strong British Queen fighting a foreign power wasn’t without precedent. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria saw herself as her namesake, and also used the story as proof of her own right to hold power.
52. Them’s Fighting Words
Before leading her troops to battle, Boudicca reportedly gave a rousing speech worthy of Braveheart. She said: “I’m not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom…Consider how many of you are fighting—and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! Let the men live in slavery if they will.”
53. Good Enough to Kiss, Not to Bury
Some carry their grief with them everywhere. In the case of Queen Joanna of Castile, this was not just a metaphor. Taking the death of her beloved husband Phillip the Handsome really hard, Joanna had her late hubby dug up and his coffin opened several times to kiss his beloved (decaying) face. From that moment on, she brought his coffin with her everywhere, even her bed.
Only years later did she return Philip to the ground—burying him right outside her window.
54. You Asked for It!
In 493 BC, Emperor Xerxes demanded the tribute of earth and water from the island of Cos, but its people refused to submit to the Persian King. Enraged, Xerxes sent Artemisia of Caria, the Pirate Queen of Ancient Greece and one of his most trusted generals, to lead the Persian fleet in a bloody conquest of the island.
55. A Celebration You Won’t Forget!
Another instance of Artemisia’s cunning being put to devastating use was given to us by 2nd-Century historian Polyaenus. Artemisia was hoping to conquer the city of Latmus, so she held a huge party just beyond the city. Naturally, all the commotion caused the city’s inhabitants to wander over, and when enough people did so, Artemisia launched her sneak attack when everyone’s guard was down!
56. Taking Rejection Badly
The context of Artemisia’s death remains unknown, though a legend was taken down by Photius, a writer from the 9th century AD. Near the end of her life, Artemisia supposedly fell in love with a prince named Dardanus, but he refused her advances and didn’t reciprocate her feelings. Enraged, Artemisia allegedly blinded Dardanus while he was still asleep, then threw herself into the sea.
Today, this is believed to be an apocryphal story, as it conflicts with everything we know about the cunning and capable Pirate Queen.
57. Scorn in the Face of Death
During the Second World War, the Netherlands was occupied by Germany. Many Dutch people began a Resistance against the Germans, including one Hannie Schaft. She helped Jewish people get their hands on fake IDs until she was arrested and sentenced to death. When the firing squad failed to kill her with the first round, she scornfully declared “I could shoot better!”
Why she doesn’t have a movie about her based on those last words alone is beyond us.
58. Going Pro(gramming)
Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer. She is known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, The Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognize the machine had more use than just calculations, became the first-ever programmer in the world as a result.
59. A Brutal End
Before Ada Lovelace turned 36, she was dying of cancer. In a matter of months, she went from feisty mathematical genius to bedridden invalid. Near-death and terrified, she made one final, heartbreaking request. She knew author Charles Dickens personally, and requested that he read her the scene from his novel Dombey and Son where little Paul Dombey dies.
A few months after the heartfelt reading, Lovelace succumbed to her illness.
60. Can’t Have It All
Lovelace was accomplished, but her personal life was a bit of a mess. For mysterious reasons, her husband William abandoned her deathbed. She had confessed something to Lord Lovelace that led him to stalk out and never return after August 30, 1852. Historians can suppose it was about her many infidelities or the truth about her sister Medora, who was a product of incest.
We may never know.